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Unvaccinated police and nurses getting fired isn't a tragedy

If your job is to protect the public, being vaccinated against Covid is part of it.

Call me crazy, but I think public servants should first and foremost serve the public. That’s not to say they deserve fewer individual rights than others, but it is to say they should understand the trade-off between those rights and the rights of the public whose interests they were put in place to protect.

That includes people who are employed by law enforcement, military and health care services, all of whom have, over the last year and a half, been heralded in some circles as vital first responders who have helped keep society running throughout the pandemic. This is why I’ve had very little patience with people in these fields who have refused to get Covid-19 vaccinations. The issue for them, unlike for some who are still hesitant, isn’t a lack of access. Neither is it about a lack of information.

Instead, they’ve had early access to the vaccines, ample opportunity to be educated about their safety and more than enough time to figure out that it’s in their communities’ best interests that they be vaccinated. Which is why recent reports of police officers’ and health care staffers’ losing their jobs because they choose to remain unvaccinated sound entirely appropriate to me.

It’s important to maintain perspective: The number of people who have actually been penalized by vaccination mandates is exceedingly small. Massachusetts is requiring all of its executive department employees to get their Covid shots before Oct. 17. The State Police union has been trying to get around this requirement given that up to a fifth of its 1,800 members are unvaccinated, per the union’s attorney.

After a judge denied the union's request to put the governor’s order on hold, the president of the union put out a statement claiming that “dozens of troopers have already submitted their resignation paperwork, some of whom plan to return to other departments offering reasonable alternatives such as mask wearing and regular testing.”

There are two things wrong with that: First, “dozens” is vague — but it’s also not how you would describe it if all 350 or so unvaccinated state troopers had decided to call it quits. Second, according to the spokesperson for the State Police, only one trooper has actually filed a resignation.

The number of people who have actually been penalized by vaccine mandates is exceedingly small.

It mirrors the bluster and panic we’ve seen people like Fox News host Tucker Carlson spread about the Pentagon’s decision last month to require all active-duty U.S. service members to be vaccinated by Dec. 15. “Hundreds of Navy SEALs” could resign because of the mandate, fretted a former GOP member of Congress. Instead, we’ve seen one entirely baseless story about 27 Air Force pilots’ resigning go viral and one case of an Army officer who resigned because of the “Marxist takeover” the mandate represented.

Contrary to the fearmongering, the rate of service members with at least one shot had gone up from 76 percent to 83 percent earlier this month. We’ll see how high that is in two months, when those still refusing vaccinations “and have not been given an exemption will face suspension or even dismissal.”

Meanwhile, the consequences of refusing inoculation can be severe for patients under the care of health care workers, especially those who deal with immunocompromised adults and unvaccinated children. And yet a higher-than-expected number of people in the health care field remain unvaccinated. We’re starting to see that part of the industry face consequences.

The head of New York City’s public hospital system announced Monday that about 5,000 of its 43,000 workers — or about 12 percent — were still unvaccinated. That's after 3,000 workers got their first shots in the week before the city's mandate kicked in. Those remaining staffers “cannot come to work and will not get paid; they're not being put on leave yet,” The New York Times’ Emma Fitzsimmons reported.

In North Carolina, a hospital system suspended 375 workers and gave them five days to comply with its mandatory vaccination policy. By Monday, almost 200 of them had already gotten their first doses, according to a spokesperson. Those who hadn’t were considered to have voluntarily resigned, the hospital system — which operates 15 hospitals and 800 clinics — confirmed on Tuesday. At most, 0.5 percent of the system’s 35,000 employees were negatively affected by the mandate.

The same pattern repeats in most places you look. Houston Methodist Hospital had 153 staffers resign or be fired for defying its vaccination mandate, or about 0.6 percent of its 25,000 employees. The CBS affiliate in Baltimore found a grand total of one hospital staffer who had quit because of the city’s and the state’s mandates.

All in all, there really doesn’t appear to be a mass movement of people choosing to leave their jobs over vaccinations. And we’re seeing, both anecdotally and through the data, that mandates move the needle on getting more people protected against Covid-19. And yet across the country, police departments and their unions have spent the last year refusing to accept vaccination mandates.

The people who are in those careers have entered fields in which their employment is conditioned on their willingness to put the safety of their communities first. If they now find that they are unwilling to do so by helping contain a deadly pandemic? Then, frankly, they have been in the wrong line of work this whole time.